Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Big Fat Idaho Blog

I don’t get to blog about Idaho very often. I was there briefly in 1998 just to rent a Jeep to do some atlas blockbusting in Oregon, and then in September 2009 I was there for the Western Field Ornithologists annual meeting.

Last weekend I was in Boise for another meeting, this time the annual meeting of the American Penstemon Society, held jointly with the Idaho Native Plant Society. Attending was the great idea of my friend Jarid Simons who invited me. Neither of us are particularly nuts about penstemons the way some people are (the Brits and other Europeans have been hybridizing them for decades), but we both like them a lot, and the field trips promised to be a botanizing bonanza.

The first evening was a reception at the Idaho Botanical Garden a couple miles east of downtown Boise. There we enjoyed the varied gardens next to the old penitentiary, and I photographed this Agapostemon metallic green bee in a four-o-clock.

The main destination of our Saturday field trip was Leslie Gulch on the Oregon side of the border, but our carpool first made a stop along Highway 95 still in Idaho in a hilly area of sagebrush steppe where Penstemon cusickii was the main target.

We were soon in Oregon, turned off on a couple dirt roads, and our leaders Jean Findley and Steven Love pulled over by a draw, opposite of which were some barren patches of exposed, eroding dirt.

On these bare patches one finds the rare and local Penstemon miser, and we managed to find several plants, but only one had one flower left.

I noticed a few plants had some caterpillar damage, looked a little closer and noticed these little caterpillars which I recognized as a checkerspot or some such brushfoot but had no book. Later Jim Brock confirmed that they are Variable Checkerspot, which is indeed known to eat Penstemon, but this species is probably a new food plant record.

Another nice plant from here was this ray flowerless daisy Erigeron bloomeri.

We then drove all the way down Leslie Gulch to where the road ends at the upper end of Owyhee Reservoir – so low this year that it will be all the way down to the river bed by the end of the summer.

Our main stop was Dago Gulch, a side canyon of this geologically fascinating area. In fact, it’s the unique geology – exposed ash flows of a very certain eruption from Mount Mahogany – that probably explain the presence of so many localized species of plants found only here and in other areas around Leslie Gulch.

Senecio ertterae, Ertter’s Groundsel is one of these extremely local species found only here.

Another is Mentzelia pakardiae, Packard’s Stickleaf.

I managed to log 22 species of birds on our short hike here, including several Black-throated Gray Warblers, lots of Lazuli Buntings (which almost everyone who cared got to see), a few chasing White-throated Swifts, and a late migrant “Western” Flycatcher.

Predictably perhaps, I paid more attention to the bugs that anyone else did. This cooperative Lorquin's Admiral was one among several that I saw.

Two-tailed Swallowtail, our largest butterfly in the West, on the thistle Cirsium inamoenum.

These cicadas, probably Okanagana bella, were so abundant on all of the trees in the wash of Dago Gulch — some willows had several dozen — I figured they must be related to the periodic cicadas of the East (but they are not).

We had a few more stops where our field trip leaders knew of some unusual plants that grown on poor soils.

At this stop we saw the very local and unusual Ivesia rhypara. In the rose family and described in 1977, its name is a curious Cockney-like play on words: “Rhypara” is Greek for “grimy,” which sounds like Grimes; James Grimes was one of the first to discover the plant.

Our last stop saw John Wise photographing a Penstemon deustus growing right out of a boulder, earning its common name Hot Rocks Penstemon.


Sunday saw us heading the same southwesterly direction from Boise, but staying on the Idaho side of the border. We met on the Snake River with clouds of Cliff and Bank Swallows flying over, then once all were present we moved on to an area call Chalky Butte, as yesterday starting in the sagebrush steppe.

At this elevation, our target, the early-blooming Penstemon acuminatus was long past its prime, but there were plenty of other interesting plants in this slightly saline soil. One of the coolest was this Astragalus kentrophyta var. jessiae, Spiny Milkvetch, looking more like a spiny phlox rather than a pea.

But the best find at this stop was this Western Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus.

The next stop was on the way to the hidden Renynolds Creek valley. The bare soils at the pass had a population of the local ball cactus Pediocactus simpsonii. I hadn’t seen this plant since my Oregon bird atlassing on the northern ridges of Steens Mountain above Juniper Lake back in 1998.

A Long-nosed Leopard-Lizard was also fun find here.

Variegated Meadowhawks were at nearly every stop this weekend, even far from water.

Our last stop in the warm, dry lowlands featured this Tiger Whiptail (along with some roadside Penstemon speciosus).

We then spent the middle hours of the day a much higher elevation below War Eagle Mountain on the road to the ghost town of Silver City. The mosaic of Douglas-fir, Curlleaf Mountain-mahogany, and even patches of Subalpine Fir created a sky island effect not too different from the mountains of SE Arizona. Common birds here were Yellow-rumped Warbler, Cassin’s Finch, and House Wren – very different from the sagebrush flats.

I didn’t take very good notes, so I’m guessing here when I call this one Penstemon humilis.

And this one Penstemon rydbergi. The plant list we were given also had P. deustus, and one of these might be that. Oops.

Some other nice plants at this stop were:
Allium acuminatum

Eriogonum umbellatum

and Antennaria sp., Pussytoes

Bug-plant interactions included these buprestid beetles, both Acmaeodera idahoensis, despite having different markings, on Hieracium cynoglossoides.

And this gorgeous Juniper Hairstreak on Eriogonum heracleoides.

Minus the plant, we have this Machimus sp. robber fly with some tiny thing in his jaws. I can’t even be certain which order it is in, but I think perhaps Homoptera. [added note: Thanks to Andy Hamilton at, the prey item is a Hemipteran (Homoptera doesn't exist any more), more precisely a leafhopper in the genus Ceratagallia. There are about 55 species in North America, and you need a better photo than this, or perhaps a specimen, to ID it to species]

Finally, we made a stop at the highest elevation – New York Summit on the west side of War Eagle Mountain, where the windswept Low Sagebrush flats didn’t look to promising at first glance. But this Astragalus whitneyi ssp. circumvagum, Balloonpod Milkvetch was quite fetching.

Even more impressive was this patch of the stunningly gorgeous Lewisia rediviva, Bitter Root, an unusual member of the portulaca family.

It was great fun to see some new areas, meet some really nice people, and be out in the field with "my kind of people" who stop and look at every plant and even know their names.


  1. A great collection of pics. The juniper hairstreak is lovely; I can't recall seeing that before.


  2. Dry and fascinating. So many rare plants should result in interesting pollinator fauna.